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Ghana Must Go: The Ugly History Of Africa’s Most Famous Bag

It was the bags that made up Solomon “Acquaye” Asiedu’s mind. They were cheap, ordinary bags. They had no name and came in blue and red, in big and medium sizes, all checked. They were wanted in Lagos markets with an intensity never experienced before. Nigerian traders sold out of the bags as hundreds jostled to get as many as they could to pack their things  into.

The bags had always been popular: they were big and spacious and sturdy enough for long-haul travel. But it was when people started calling them “Ghana must go” bags that the young man knew it was time to leave. The bags followed him home, as he crossed two countries to return to Ghana and, 36 years later, they still stare at him from stores on every corner — with the same cursed name. They represent a period of despair that many Ghanaians would rather forget.

“I was not ready to leave,” said Acquaye, now 67. “I had just one bag with me.”

The year was 1983, the day, January 17. Acquaye had just listened to Shehu Shagari, the Nigerian leader who favoured long hats, declare the expulsion of an estimated two million undocumented migrants living in the country. Half of them were Ghanaian. “If they don’t leave, they should be arrested and tried and sent back to their homes. Illegal immigrants, under normal circumstances, should not be given any notice whatsoever,” President Shagari said. Acquaye and millions like him with no papers were told to get out within two weeks or risk jail. “If you break a law, then you have to pay for it,” said the president.

Refugees leaving Nigeria wait at the boarder to enter Benin as part of their journey back to Ghana (Photo by Michel Setboum/Getty Images)

Two years before, Acquaye had arrived in Nigeria with zero cash and a hundred hopes. He had followed the road trail leading through Aflao in Ghana to Lomé in Togo and then onwards through the Seme border between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. He wasn’t the only one, clicking his tongue at the memory. “That time everybody was going. There was money in Nigeria.”

There was indeed. In 1958, Nigeria struck oil as a young, soon-to-be-liberated country with a population of 100-million. First Shell, then Mobil and Agip set up shop in the country to drill oil commercially.

Two years before, Acquaye had arrived in Nigeria with zero cash and a hundred hopes. He had followed the road trail leading through Aflao in Ghana to Lomé in Togo and then onwards through the Seme border between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. He wasn’t the only one, clicking his tongue at the memory. “That time everybody was going. There was money in Nigeria.”

There was indeed. In 1958, Nigeria struck oil as a young, soon-to-be-liberated country with a population of 100-million. First Shell, then Mobil and Agip set up shop in the country to drill oil commercially.

The oil money was steady and hopes were high that Nigeria could prosper, despite the brutal military regimes that marred that period. In the 1970s the economy exploded when oil prices soared worldwide. The golden decade had arrived and the country became Africa’s wealthiest, securing its title: Giant of Africa. By 1974, Nigeria’s oil wells were spitting out some 2.3-million barrels a day. The standard of living improved. There was an influx of people from the farms into the cities; when they travelled, robust iron boxes were generally preferred over cheap plastic sacks. The influx came not just from within Nigeria, but from across the region.

“Ghana was hell. Nothing was working in this country.”

While Nigeria was booming, its closest English-speaking neighbour, Ghana, was going through quite the opposite. A deadly mix of famine and insurgency was precipitated by a crash in the price of cocoa (Ghana was the world’s largest cocoa producer in the 1960s) and the 1966 coup, which ousted independence leader Kwame Nkrumah. At the time, the country’s population hovered around the seven-million mark, but several million people decided to journey east and try their fortunes in prosperous Nigeria.

“Ghana was hell,” said Dr Mawuli Adjei, a retired English lecturer from the University of Ghana. Ghana was close to a failed state and, like Acquaye, Adjei was forced to leave. “Nothing was working in this country,” Adjei said, speaking from the garden chair of his Accra home. Money was hard to come by and when he did have it, he couldn’t use it. Food was scarce: he couldn’t buy even a tin of milk. At grocery stores, queues were common.

Recruiters from Nigeria came to Ghana looking for people who would like to teach or take up casual jobs — the jobs Nigerians themselves were unwilling to do. But Adjei, jobless even with a degree, had missed the call. Determined, he travelled on his own to the Yoruba town of Ejigbo, in Nigeria’s west and stayed with an uncle. Ejigbo felt like home — many here were also from Ghana and Adjei’s mother tongue, Ewe, flowed like wine from their mouths.

Unlike Adjei, Acquaye was uneducated. That didn’t stop him from making it in Lagos, then the capital city, where big money was rolling in. He made enough to send back to his wife and child. His first job was moulding building blocks. He landed another as a guard in Victoria Island, an elite suburb, where he opened gates for important people. He loved the calm. It was so quiet that, in some places, certain cars were not allowed to move so that they wouldn’t disturb the rich folks.

So many Ghanaians went to Nigeria that it seemed like every Ghanaian family had a relative working there. Across the 19 states that existed then — there are now 36 — primary and secondary schools were filled with Ghanaian teachers, who were well known for their thoroughness and their pankeres — the long, supple beating sticks wrapped lovingly in sticky tape for added sting. Law offices, shoe repair shops, ice cream parlours, restaurants and brothels were flooded with neighbours from the west.

Life was good. Acquaye was lucky to secure a small room meant for domestic workers in one of the mansions that lined Kofo Abayomi Street. There, he made friends with “big” men: “I even knew Captain Gowon Junior. I knew him!” Acquaye swears, jumping at the memory. Captain Isaiah Gowon is the younger brother of General Yakubu Gowon, the one-time military head of state. “He was staying at the Plateau state governor’s house and I was there as a security man.”

On the weekends, he joined the large crowds watching criminals being executed at Bar Beach. Then he ate banku, a Ghanaian specialty, and drank with friends. Even on his small salary, things were affordable. “I [would go] to Agege market to buy food for the whole week and it would not reach five naira,” he recalls incredulously.

Returning refugees at the Ghana border. (Photo by Michel Setboum/Getty Images)

And then came the oil crash. Global oil prices started to dip in 1982, when large consumer markets such as the United States and Canada slipped into recession and demand was low. By 1983, the price of a barrel had fallen to $29, down from $37 in 1980.

At around the same time, the US began producing its own oil, further cutting demand and causing excess supply. Nigeria, its economy almost exclusively reliant on oil, was hard hit. By 1982, 90% of the country’s foreign reserves had been wiped out, according to the Washington Post.

And then came the oil crash. Global oil prices started to dip in 1982, when large consumer markets such as the United States and Canada slipped into recession and demand was low. By 1983, the price of a barrel had fallen to $29, down from $37 in 1980.

At around the same time, the US began producing its own oil, further cutting demand and causing excess supply. Nigeria, its economy almost exclusively reliant on oil, was hard hit. By 1982, 90% of the country’s foreign reserves had been wiped out, according to the Washington Post.

Source: Mail&Guardian

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